By Jan Worth-Nelson
A giant flamingo, a raft made of recycled water bottles, dozens of multi-colored canoes, paddle boards and kayaks, and a man suspended in his own specially designed wetsuit floated down the Flint River Saturday afternoon at the fifth annual Flint River Flotilla.
It was what Flotilla planners hoped would be “the best river party of the year,” offering a generous dose of “endless summer.”
Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the co-sponsoring Flint River Watershed Coalition, said at least 300 river buffs, the most ever for the annual event, registered for the chance to clamber down the bank at Tenacity Brewing and float down the historic, muddy old waterway–cleaner nowadays than it’s ever been, local river experts faithfully assert–to the Mott Park Recreation Area, where they disembarked for an after-float party.
“It’s a great day,” Fedewa said. “It’s great weather and what can I say–there are just gazillions of beautiful kayaks.” Kayak Flint, a new business specializing in river recreation, offered 20 kayaks for rent which were quickly snapped up, she said–most people brought their own water craft.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see 300 of your closest friends and neighbors float down the river together,” Sarah Scheitler, Corridor Alliance manager, said. “The Flint community is seizing opportunities to reconnect with the Flint River and we are so excited that the Flotilla is a part of that.”
At the launch site, as families gingerly slid their boats and floats from boulders into the slow-moving water, a heron watched calmly. In recent years, the river consistently has been home to a resurgence of wildlife, including an eagle family thought to have nested somewhere along the riverbank this year.
At least one little girl, Rylie Lucas, 12, of Flushing, wasn’t so sure the float was a good idea, but the rest of her family — brothers Xavier, 16, Isaac, 14, mother Tonja and dad Jeremy coaxed her in, with help from Flotilla volunteer Marcell Simmons.
Flint River Watershed Coalition Board Chair Doug Schultz kept careful watch from a blue kayak. Jeremy Lucas tucked Rylie’s little sister Sophie, 3, into a floater with him, and the whole family proceeded down the river intact.
“This is the most amazing day ever,” said a beaming Alisa Craig, volunteering from co-sponsor Hurley Medical Center. “The weather is perfect and we’ve got record-breaking numbers.”
Mary Kennedy Jacob of Flint prepared to launch a raft made of water bottles — “a great way to recycle them,” she said.
Jacob, an eighth grade English teacher from Grand Blanc West Middle School, said the raft was made by sixth, seventh and eighth grade boys in teacher Deb Chapman’s “Impact Class.”
Milton David Mills, a Flint native, said he was going into the river with only his own wetsuit to keep him afloat, and was thereby launching “Milton David Mills Enterprises.”
He said he had been homeless a year ago and still now camps where he wants from time to time but also stays in Davison. He rode his bike to the river for the flotilla, asserting, “you get better gas mileage on a Schwinn.”
“I’m just here to float,” he said.
Flint physician Bobby Mukkumala, a significant local benefactor and enthusiastic Flint River supporter, said the response to river-based programs has been “absolutely great.”
The Kayak Flint program started last year with support from the Mukkumala family and others has been “going like gangbusters,” with 150 people gliding down the river just last weekend, he said.
Mukkumala owns the Tenacity Brewing building. He said he bought it five years ago because he thought it was a beautiful building and had promising access to the river.
“It’s perfect for things like this,” he said, with energetic rock music and dozens of kayakers getting ready to launch behind him. “This part of the river doesn’t look industrial,” he noted, “and so people can truly see what it looks like in its natural state” in contrast to the concretized section further downriver.
Saturday Mukkumala was hosting old friends, the Yalamanchili family, formerly of New York City and now of Houston.
Mukkumala said the two families, connected through their parents who immigrated from India decades ago, have been getting together in Flint almost every summer since 1975.
“It used to be we could count on one hand the times we’d actually come downtown when they were here,” he said. “And now today, it’s amazing–so many things to do in Flint.”
The Mott Park Recreation Area is the future site of a new Flint “Paddlers” landing, Fedewa noted, and construction of the landing is slated to begin immediately following the Flotilla. The paddlers’ landing is being funded by a successful Patronicity campaign which brought in $100,000 — $50,000 from local donors, matched by $50,000 from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
The Flotilla after-party at Mott Park was sponsored by North American Engineering & Tooling Center/Local 659 and Hurley Medical Center. It featured live music from local band Sweet Pea, food from Bella’s Catering food truck, and ice cream by Jon Hardman.
Other sponsors of the event were Kettering University, University of Michigan-Flint, Wade Trim, E&L Construction Group, Al Bourdeau Insurance Agency, ELGA Credit Union, Gazall Lewis Architects, ROWE Professional Services, Flint City T-Shirts, the City of Flint, and Recycle Bike Shop.
As described in its press release, The Corridor Alliance was founded in 2007 “to initiate, support, and sustain projects in Flint’s river corridor that revitalize the river as a community asset.” It became a chapter of the Flint River Watershed Coalition in 2018.
The Flint River Watershed Coalition “seeks a healthy, vibrant, active Flint River watershed for all and works in partnership to protect, promote, and improve the Flint River and its watershed.
More information about the FRWC and other Flint River programs is available at www.FlintRiver.org.
Banner photo: Kayaks lined up for the launch (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.